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The Way It Was
Wednesday, October 10, 2012 • Posted October 10, 2012

In last week’s paper when I announced the opening of our antique store, I mentioned that I would write more about some of the coins that we currently have featured. The entire selection includes the set of coins I collected of my birth year,1953, for my Coin Collecting merit badge when I was a Boy Scout. When I seriously returned to coin collecting as an adult a number of years ago, I decided to collect a date set of one hundred years before my birth, therefore I set out to collect one of each of the coins made in 1853. The challenge came when I realized that while there were just five coins minted in 1953, in 1853 there were thirteen different coins, and five of those were gold! When I completed the set it ended up being considerably more expensive than I had first anticipated, but it was also much more interesting than I expected.

The coin with the least face value is one of the coins I want to share with you today, and one that has not been seen in regular commerce for one hundred and fifty years. That coin is a copper HALF CENT, which was close to the size of our current quarter and was one of the first coins made by the Philadelphia mint in 1793 when they first started making coinage for the new United States. In an age when prime land could often be bought for a dollar an acre, every penny was worth quite a lot and there was a need for even smaller denominations. These first coins were shown as being 1/200th of a dollar, but once merchants were used to “cents” then they became half cents and were quite common in daily purchases for the regular needs of our forefathers. They were minted in the millions in the early years of the American republic, and were well accepted so that very few can be found today in pristine shape and most are in very worn condition. However, by the 1850’s the economy had grown and inflation was a part of life then as now, and the half cent was no longer as necessary and it was dropped from the coinage by the sweeping changes of the Coinage Act of 1857. Today it is a tangible symbol of the early years of America and the changes that have made many things that our forefathers relied on merely curiosities in today’s world.

Another coin that was fairly common in 1853, but that is beyond most imagination in the twenty-first century, was the gold dollar. A silver dollar was among the first coins of the federal mint in 1793, but it was only after the California gold rush beginning in 1848 that there was enough gold for it to become a standard part of the American coinage. Beginning in 1849 and continuing until 1889 there were gold dollars, but while the silver dollar was, and still is, the largest circulating coin; the gold dollar is the smallest coin made in America. The coin is just 13 mm in diameter, the size of a small button and much thinner, and you need a magnifier to see much of the detail. It is hard to imagine that it would not be easily lost and surely that would be a great disaster a hundred and fifty years ago. None the less, it was popular and useful in those days gone by and served a real purpose in a time before paper dollar bills were printed by the government.

There were several other coins that were common in those long ago years that we never see today unless we seek them out. My 1853 set contains a three cent silver coin, a half-dime in silver before anyone thought to make them of nickel, a silver dollar and gold coins of $2.50, $5.00, $10.00 and $20.00 denominations. These and many more treasures from the past are on display and available for sale at Red Door Antiques on the north side of the square next to Hinckley’s Variety Store. We are open Friday and Saturday from 10:00 to 4:00 and by appointment, and I always enjoy visiting and explaining some of the interesting pieces of our history that we display. In a week or two I will write again to share another unusual coin from the past, the two cent coin that was introduced during the Civil War and was the first to contain something we all take for granted on our American money today. You don’t have to be a collector or shopper to stop in at Red Door Antiques and enjoy learning something new about “THE WAY IT WAS...”

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